Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Well That's a First

There are many different types of jobs in the world, but they all have this much in common: they will all be performed cheaper once they are outsourced to Mongolia, or more efficiently once they are performed by friendly machines with names like the GARY36.

One other thing they all have in common: they all have a first day.

When I arrived in Korea, I underwent a week-and-a-half of orientation before starting work in the city of Suncheon on Sept. 1. I arrived in the city via bus the afternoon before, where I was informed of my class schedule and living arrangements, and told that I would be teaching the next morning starting at 7 a.m.

The first casualties of my struggle to adapt were my alarm clock and palm pilot’s AC adapter, which were snuffed out in a burst of sparks when both were plugged into an electric outlet converter to help westerners use their electronics. Being unable to charge my palm pilot was unfortunate, but having no alarm clock left me with no recourse for the night except to sleep with the light on and wake up every few minutes to check my watch.

So, with a full night of inadequate sleep, I wandered into a classroom full of curious brown faces that Thursday morning and attempted to create a persona for myself; a kind of inflated blimp advertising that “THIS FOREIGNER KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING.” I thought I handled it as well as I could, especially since I hadn’t yet learned how to operate the air conditioning in the room and my forehead resembled a kind of apricot-colored marsh.

However, one of my students, a 40-something obstetrician who chose the nickname of “Peter” for my class interpreted the conglomeration of hydrogen-atoms mingling with oxygen atoms on my face differently, though as a native he ought to have known that un-air conditioned rooms in South Korean summers feel like saunas to which everyone wears wingtips.

Picture an average Korean man (which you can do by picturing an average Western man, just four inches shorter, eight-to-ten waist sizes smaller and marinated with tanning lotion) acting as the embodiment of all that is not a self-confidence boost. On this morning, that is what he became, simply by saying “I think you are too shy.” These words were kind of like six separate machine malfunctions culminating to turn my carefully-inflated image into a metaphorical Hindenburg of self-worth.

On most first days, people are usually able to go to McDonalds at lunch time and drown their sorrows over Coca-Cola and an artery-clogging entrée of their choice. In a foreign country, before you have located stores where artery-clogging entrees are to be found, you retreat to your apartment, embarking on the epic undertaking of attempting to turn the appliances on. Call me a dreamer, but I attempted this my first day. I suppose I was aiming high.

Once it was clear that I would fail, my first meal in my first Korean apartment was a potato. It had been heated in a microwave (I couldn’t understand its instructions either; I just pushed a lucky combination of buttons). The potato had been washed, and then little holes were punched into it to make sure it was softened all the way through.

That was all I could do with the potato before I ate it. I offered a silent prayer first, but I’d be lying if I said I thanked God for the meal. I would also be less than veracious if I said I had chosen to think optimistically, and said “It can’t get worse than this.”

In truth, I thought it could. My classes with small children would not truly begin until the following Monday, and my religion class, full of ripe minds who would look to me as some source of Biblical knowledge, would begin a week later. “I can’t make scrambled eggs today,” I said. “And next week my teaching may influence someone’s possible salvation.”

What does a young man in his mid-twenties seeking to establish himself far from home do in a situation like this? At 6 p.m. (4 a.m. in America’s central time zone) I called my mom. “Maybe it’ll get better in the future,” I told her. “Right now I’m about to snap.”

When classes ended at 9 p.m. Pastor Moon, our institute director, offered to take the foreign teachers to dinner. He could’ve chosen any sort of restaurant where a rice-based concoction resembling food would’ve been served, but he chose Pizza Hut. “The first day of the term is always the hardest,” he said to no one in particular, but I think I know who it was aimed at.

Days and weeks passed, routines were formed and what was once unknown became habit. Nearly two months after I arrived, my student Peter offered to buy me a traditional Korea breakfast after our class. “At the beginning of class you were very shy,” he said during our meal. “But now I think you are very skillful.”

As I write this, I’m only one day removed from my flight back to Korea, and my first day teaching at the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Chuncheon will July 3. It won’t be easy, nor will it be the last “first” I ever encounter again. However, some of the most rewarding things in life are the hardest to start.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


The Latest Trend

Those who make their living in the liberal arts like to think of themselves as iconoclasts, operating independently and outside the influence of public opinion. Those of us with a background in newspapers are particularly fond of looking at themselves this way. After all, saying that you “chose” such a low-paying profession because you look at life differently than others certainly sounds better than saying that field is the only one that would have you because you have no other useful skills.

Though not currently employed by a newspaper, I had convinced myself that I was still an independent thinker; I mean, I chose to leave my home in Tennessee to spend time living in a far eastern country where people eat three meals cooked to a temperature roughly equal to molten lava, only spicier. I chose to live in a country just south of a nuclear-armed nation whose leader’s idea of a diplomatic statement is “I will turn (insert name of city) into a (insert type of body of water) of fire.”

Surely my individuality was secure, right? Well, since I came home at the start of May, my free-thinking façade has come unraveled on three fronts.

1-The iPod— I told myself that an iPod would be an unnecessary expenditure of several hundred dollars, when my CDs continued to work just fine, thank you. Well, once you’ve gotten onto a cramped airplane seat, had to go digging through a suitcase for your CD, placed it in the portable CD player you’ve had since before the Clinton impeachment, then gone digging for another CD 45 minutes later, all while the Canadian sitting next to you sits, happily thumbing through musical genres on his mp3 player with minimal effort, then you’d do what I’d do: you’d nurse a deep-seated loathing of Canadians*.

You might also decide that $(amount of money certain to provoke despondency if said aloud) isn’t really that high of a price to pay. — Everybody, including some who wouldn’t otherwise be spending an unhealthy amount of time socializing near middle school playgrounds, has started a MySpace account. Honestly, the whole idea reeks of trendiness, until you start to view it as a practical way to reconnect with people you haven’t seen since college, or even high school.

Upon said reconnection, you can have interesting conversations, such as: “Now that I think about it, I do remember you; you were a varsity cheerleader who looked at guys like me as though they were total Morlocks. You don’t know what a Morlock is, do you? Perhaps that’s for the best…So, when did you finish college? Oh, sorry to hear that…”

3-The Da Vinci Code — It pains me to admit this far more than the other two, but yes, I read The Da Vinci Code during my time off. I wanted to see for myself if there was a reason people were buying it, so at the same time I was buying a Father’s Day present I snuck into the book section at Wal-Mart when no one else was there and stole away with a copy.

Well, not actually stole, I did pay for it, I just used a self-checkout lane so no one would see me. Naturally, I had some trouble during the process and one of clerks had to attend to me. “Please don’t tell anyone I’m buying The Da Vinci Code,” I pleaded. “Tell them I’m buying Sudafed and other ingredients for making meth if you have to, anything but the Da Vinci Code.

Many say that The Da Vinci Code has only sold so well because of its sensationalized story that assails the core beliefs of Christianity. Others say it is the book’s gripping plot and complex mystery. Well, in the three hours it took to read the book** I came up with a theory of my own: the back of the book says “More than 40 million copies sold.” That means that, worldwide, there are nearly that many aspiring novelists out there buying this book in order to give themselves inspiration

They figure that if someone can make money writing sentences like “Prominent New York editor Jonas Faukman tugged nervously at his goatee,” then why should they have to have real jobs? This is why, every time we go to a book store now days, we see a new copycat, this one proving that clues hidden in medieval architecture prove that David Stern wanted Miami to win the NBA finals.

People are also curious, because every time they turn around there’s a hack like Pat Buchanan saying that this book and the movie based upon it “can only have the effect of undermining the faith of millions of Christians.” One has to wonder how someone’s faith could be undermined by story of fiction, and not even a particularly good one.

Probably somebody whose faith was a little more than a trend.

*”Ooh, look at us Canucks: we never been in a quagmire! And if our leader had a 30 percent approval rating we could vote him out of office immediately!” Well we’re all really happy for you, eh?!
**Two hours spread out over several days; I can only handle about eight page of wretched, unbelievable dialogue at a time.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


"There's No Gravity on the Moon!"

I haven’t been to many concerts featuring big-name artists. Attending an event such as this requires several concurrent factors: 1) at least a handful of monetary bills adorned with Andrew Jackson, 2) the patience to mingle with tens of thousands of people determined to enforce the artist’s worst stereotypes, and 3) acceptance of the fact that several monetary units featuring Andrew Jackson won’t necessarily buy a good view of the artist, or, for that matter, any view at all.

Once these three ingredients are in place, a fourth component is usually required: at least one friend with the same first three components and similar musical taste. These requirements have rarely convalesced in my case, but this summer was one exception.

This summer I realized that the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival would be taking place during my two-month sabbatical from teaching English in Korea. So, I said to Ryan Thomas, my best friend of 12 years, that attending would be a good way to mark my time at home and possibly make some new memories. It was important that I tell him this before I discussed what the tickets cost.

Upon hearing the ticket prices, he sighed, cast his eyes at an unidentified distant object behind me and said, “We’ll see.” I’ve encountered this response from him before; I’m pretty sure it means “I can’t, but this just might save me the trouble of having to say so.” I, however, would not be deterred: I offered to pay for both tickets.

“We’re going to make memories while I’m here,” I said, “even if I do have to have to pay…to pay… (I’m sorry, I can’t type it. I thought I could, but not without crying).”

I was convinced of its importance, and still am, because there are some things you simply can’t be educated about in school; at least not at the Extremely Christian University of Sheltered Learning that I attended. Having attended Bonnaroo, I can now say that there is one area of life in which my knowledge has increased at least 10-fold: hippies.

I’m sure you know that hippies wear colorful clothing made of inexpensive vegetation, support the ideals of peace and love (as opposed to those who support the ideals of uproar and indifference) and were at their most fashionable in the late ‘60s. During the weekend, I saw two separate categories of hippies: those who were born 40 years too late, and, even worse, those who weren’t.

As I said before, concerts tend to attract those determined to enforce the worst stereotypes of their genre. I can tell you firsthand that not every person who listens to hard rock wears black all the time, smells like methamphetamines and perspiration, and considers indiscriminate crashing into random strangers after a running start their idea of quality recreation time. However, I can also tell you firsthand that these are the only people who attend hard rock concerts.

Likewise, not everyone who listens to contemporary Christian music walks like they have a steeple lodged beneath the seat of their baggy jeans and says things like “We’re going to have a phat time praising God!” These are, however, the only people I’ve ever seen at a Newsong concert.

Beck and Radiohead were among the headlining artists at this year’s Bonnaroo, and I suspect that their fans are those who respect the ideals of the ‘60s but found the movement ineffectual and were put off by hippies’ cavalier use of their natural assets, by which I mean their brain cells. Most of those who attended the actual concert, however, spent much of the day passed out on environmentally friendly blankets, or, in at least one case, attempting to swim to the moon.

I’m not kidding about that last one. My most vivid memories of the evening involve seeing a young man about my age in a red bandana totter next to me and Ryan. Perhaps inspired by Radiohead’s atmospheric sound, he was practicing his freestyle stroke while his friends offered words of encouragement such as “There’s no gravity on the moon!” We found him so amusing that we both took pictures, to which he responded, “No more flashes, I’m gonna fall down.”

Radiohead gave a great performance, or at least I think they did; I could only see them on monitors beside the stage. For all I know, the entire concert was recorded elsewhere and those in the first 100 rows were told that those who didn’t play along would receive a visit from the DEA. At any rate, they sounded good enough that Ryan and I left for home Sunday morning, even though there was still a day full of music ahead.

We both concluded we’d heard enough music and made a sufficient amount of memories to placate us for the next year.

Besides, we both needed to shower; we still smelled like counterculture.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Catching the Migukin Fever

I left on the way to South Korea at 6 a.m. on Aug. 21. The first time the idea of leaving the country crossed my mind was probably at 9 p.m. on Aug. 22, when I arrived in guest housing for orientation and found out that my shower was a) a kind of handheld faucet kept in the same small room as the washing machine and the Watos, the Korean commode brand of choice and b) in a room whose windows exposed the showerer to the public.

True, we weren’t exactly on ground floor, but it was easy for my overactive imagination to picture patrons of the fitness gym across the street taking a break from their treadmills and stationery bikes, grabbing some popcorn and saying “It’s 9 p.m., time for naked Migukin* show!”

However, I enjoyed my experience next several months, which wasn’t even dampened by my first encounter with flu-like symptoms in early October. I awoke from an afternoon nap to discover that, despite the 15-20 pounds I had already lost, my legs alone felt as though they weighed as much as Asia Minor. At this point I called my teaching coordinator, a South African woman named Mimie whose voice was so shrill it could peel grapefruits from a distance of 150 meters.

“Don’t worry Rob, we’ll take care of it,” she said over the phone, as I watched my tangerines in the kitchen unsheathe themselves and the bedroom floor tile peel. Previously, it had been a source of great pride that I had only taken one sick day in two years working at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, and that was when I’d had my wisdom teeth removed. However, I actually didn’t mind missing work on this particular afternoon, a sentiment I probably couldn’t disguise despite my best efforts.

“Yeah, Mimie, sorry I can’t teach screaming hyperactive kids the proper way to say ‘seagull’ this afternoon,” I said. “I’m also distraught by the possibility that I won’t be teaching adult classes until 9 p.m. tonight and then waking up at 7 a.m. tomorrow to start the work day again. Seriously, I might throw myself from my fifth-story window had I the strength to open it.”

The second time I encountered flu-like symptoms was in December, which was also the second time I considered leaving the country and going home. At this point I had lost 30 pounds and wondered if I was losing an extra kilogram with each guttural cough. “I’ve got chills and I can’t feel my hands,” I probably said out loud, and a gaggle of Korean high schoolers probably repeated after me, thinking they were learning a popular Migukin party phrase.

But I didn’t go home in December, and January and February were uneventful months, at least in terms of health.

March and April were different. First, there was a standard flu case with muscle aches, runny nose and sore throat, which caused me to miss a day’s worth of classes. Then came teacher’s retreat at the end of March, in which I and at least 80 other teachers drank contaminated water and found ourselves retreating to the hwajangsil** all weekend.

During an evening that I spent in the fetal position preparing to relive that evening’s lasagna in a series of installments, I reached several conclusions: 1) The Watos is a fine piece of craftsmanship capable handling a large volume in one evening, 2) I don’t know about nuclear or chemical, but I’m pretty sure Saddam hid his biological weapons in that lasagna, and 3) I’d had enough.

Upon returning to my institute I requested a two-month leave of absence. It was granted and would begin in May, continuing until the start of July. It was a difficult decision at the time, but fortunately April reminded me of its necessity. There was, for example, the time my students strained their ears to listen to the Migukin with a wood rasp for a voice saying “Okay everybody, today we’re going to learn a new word. Repeat after me: ‘Laryngitis.’”

Then, about week later, a student in my 7 a.m. session began the day by asking an atypical question in an English conversation class: “Teacher, why won’t you open your right eye?” Its plentiful secretions had caused it to get stuck together overnight, but when it finally did unfasten I could use its brilliant burgundy hue to my advantage: I could tell junior students that I would come get them at night if they didn’t learn how to pronounce “th.”

That day, I saw an oriental medicine doctor who gave me acupuncture. I still don’t know if putting 15 needles in my ear and one in each wrist actually served any purpose other than for the clinic’s staff’s amusement. I imagine them watching on hidden camera saying, “Pass the popcorn. The only thing better than naked Migukin is squirming Migukin!”

But the doctor did give me a dose of inspiration when he said to me, “Your immune system is very weak. You need rest.” When I return to Korea, the next phrase I intend to learn will be for him: it will be an approximate translation of “Ya don’t say?”

*Which is the Korean word for Americans, as opposed to the American word for Koreans, which is “Lee.”
**Which is the Korean word for restroom. If restrooms have a word for Koreans I’ve yet to discover it.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Traveling: Making Memories, Hating Karen Carpenter

During my childhood my parents and I would often gather together ever so often and decide to travel to a locale several hours away. Our destination was often Michigan, the home of my maternal grandparents, as well as many aunts, uncles and cousins. We preferred making these trips in the summer, because in January it is possible to not only make a snowman, but also to share a cup of hot chocolate with him later when he confides that even he hates Michigan winters.

On other occasions, we would visit my older sister in Florida, preferably in winter, when we felt secure enough from alligator attacks to walk outside placing bets on names for next years hurricanes.

No matter the destination, these trips allowed my parents and I to leave behind the things that separated us, like their jobs and my school work, and spend time in close proximity for many days. Having spent 10-11 hours in a car together on the way to Michigan or Florida and then 10-11 hours together on the trip back, we would then be reminded of my we let work and school separate us in the first place.

My parents and I went to Michigan during Memorial Day weekend to see one of my cousins get married. Things typically go fine when they drive, and I’m allowed to sit in the backseat reading and seeing how many songs my iPod can play before its woefully inadequate battery expires. But inevitably they will ask for a break from the driving and duties will transfer to me. This is where the candid exchange of opinions begins. For example:

Parent’s candid opinion: Do you have to drive so close to those in front of you that a dirt bike couldn’t fit between their bumper and your hood?
My candid opinion: At least I can change channels on the radio without grazing the outside of the nearest ditch with the left set of tires.

I suppose that’s not entirely fair of me; I simply happened to be born at the right time. I am a member of the first generation to learn to drive after car CD players became popular. Our generation perfected a method by which we could eject a CD from the CD player, put the CD in a specific place in the CD carrying case containing enough CDs to fully stock your average Best Buy, select a different, but equally specific CD from the CD case, and then put the CD in the CD player all without taking our eyes off the road.

If only all of us would use this power for good.

By contrast, most members of my parents’ generation use the CD player far less, instead preferring to listen to radio stations which have used the same play lists (and sometimes the same song) since the Johnson administration. As such, when travel causes them to leave the range of their favorite stations, they face a task they’ve not had time to master, a task that steals attention away from the road. On the other hand, those my age find changing channels while driving easier than breathing, though not as easy as sarcasm.

However, though I can switch radio stations easily enough, finding one my parents and I can agree upon presents yet another challenge. I have a vast collection of CDs spanning multiple genres, but my parents categorize nearly all of it as “stuff that isn’t music.” I, however, can make distinctions in their collections, between “music I actually enjoy,*” “music I can tolerate**” and music that makes me want to stick my head out of the car window in the hopes that contact with a passing semi will forever silence the infernal voice of Karen Carpenter.***”

Our Memorial Day expedition was not unlike any other we’ve taken to Michigan. We arrived successfully, were greeted by my grandparents, who asked us how our trip was, to which we answered in unison, “Good” with heads nodding for added believability. From there, we spend time with various members of Mom’s family, beginning the corresponding conversations we always have: they ask Mom how my sisters are doing, my Dad about something related to machinery, and me…well, I’ve transcribed it for you:

Them: Do you have a girlfriend?
Me: Not at the moment (it never seems to be the moment when they ask).
Them: Why not?
Me: If I knew that I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have to ask.
Them: I wonder if I know someone…
Me: Where’s that %^#$ing iPod?

This continues for several days, and then we return home. It would be a bad idea if families spent that much time together every day, but the occasional vacation does help us to understand one another better. “You’re right,” my parents will say, “The other drivers are idiots.”

“Okay, Karen Carpenter could sing,” I will say. “Her lyrics were inane, insipid and the collie we had euthanized when I was fifteen**** could write a better set of words, but she had a decent voice.”
Every family should have vacations like these.

*Such as Johnny Cash
**Such as John Denver
***Such as The Carpenters
****Her name was Lassie

Sunday, June 04, 2006


A Dose of Childlike Joy

As a teacher at one of the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institutes in South Korea, I’m required, along with my duties leading English conversation classes, to teach one religion class each term. This class is not for a grade, but it motivates locals interested in learning more English by using lessons from the Bible in order to start conversations.
On a particular February morning, I was preparing to teach my religion class at the institute in the city of Suncheon, located on Korea’s southern coast. I would be using one of the lessons that SDALI provided, one which compared the adulterous woman Jesus forgave in John 8 to characters found in the Julia Roberts movie “Pretty Woman.” In religion class, one of the duties of the foreign teachers is to explain large words that the students might not understand.
On this particular day, one of the words was “prostitution.” With words such as these (another example would be “circumcision”) I often find it easier to tell the students the Korean translation, rather than finesse my way through explicit English definitions while my face gradually grows more luminous.
“Ashlee,” I asked one of the Korean junior teachers, “can you look in your electronic dictionary and look up this word?”
Ashlee’s sweet yet inquisitive face tilted down toward her small silver source of knowledge as she punched in the English letters she was offering in exchange for Korean characters. I knew she’d found the answer by the look on her face.
It was the look similar to that of a 6-year-old hearing where babies come from for the first time: amazement mixed with a liberal dose of horror. She eventually told me the Korean word, but at first she could only mutter “They sell their bodies…?”
Ashlee, whose real name is Kim Yu Seon, had joined the institute staff only four months earlier. At 24, she was two years younger than I am, speaks English competently enough to teach it to children at the Suncheon institute and Japanese fluently enough to instruct adults. Though she possesses more linguistic ability than I could ever claim, this example shows that her knowledge in other areas of life has greater room to grow.
SDALI has a great opportunity to reach people such as these.

Hard-Working People
Koreans are very driven people. Pictures brought home by American GIs at the end of the Korean War testify to what the nation had to work with following the conflict between the communist north and American-backed south. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, lay in ruins and more than a million lives, both civilian and military, had been claimed. In the years that followed, the country’s stock has risen dramatically, to the point where it is currently the 10th largest economy in the world.
The country that Ashlee was born into in the early 1980s had both prospered and suffered under the two-decade administration of economics-minded dictator Park Chung-hee, who had nourished financial growth while stifling freedom of dissent and fixing elections to keep himself in power. By the 1990s, Korea had begun holding free elections and had become one of the world’s most economically viable nations, but its past hardships had left their mark on its people’s mindsets: to them, all things are possible through hard work, especially hard work in school.
Today, in addition to their native tongue, Korean students are expected to study English, as well as another foreign language of their choosing by the time they complete university study. The benefits of this mentality are many: literacy is nearly 100 percent, and English-speaking foreigners such as myself can travel easily in the country because most signs and subway maps are bilingual.
However, there are also drawbacks: Korean parents spend literally billions of dollars each year on after-school tutoring, and sometimes students and businessmen respond to the pressure with suicide. The determination to keep up with the neighbors motivates Korean students but places an enormous burden upon their shoulders.
But this focus on education creates a ripe mission field for SDALI. Teachers from English-speaking countries all over the world come to one of the 37 SDA institutes all over Korea for the purpose of offering them the English, Japanese or Chinese classes they desire. At the same time, we hope to show them that the classroom cannot teach them everything they should know about life.

Best-Laid Plans
My first two-month term in Suncheon took place in September-October of 2005. Students must complete six levels of English study at SDALI in order to graduate, but a first-term teacher can only instruct in levels one and two. In my first term, I had two adult level one, one level two, and one religion class to teach, as well as two hours-worth of junior classes to help out in.
When compared to my level one classes, where students often struggled to understand me when I told them they had a test the following day, my level two class was a teacher’s dream. The students were almost all close to my age, spoke clearly, in mostly complete sentences, and most made an effort to attend each day. Only one student is to receive the excellence award when an English class finishes, but this course had several participants worthy of such an honor. Of all of them, Ashlee’s grade was the highest.
Ashlee took her name and its idiosyncratic spelling from American pop singer Ashlee Simpson. She had lived for a time in Japan and had graduated with degrees in both Japanese and, due to the wishes of her parents, computer science. Though she’d completed college courses, she lived at home, with a protective family who did not want her out too late at night. One day, as our class practiced conversation, I asked her what she wanted to do with her career.
“I want to have my own business,” she said.
And I wanted for her to have it. I wanted to be the teacher who inspired her, who helped her to graduate from our institute, and taught her the English she needed to get ahead in the private sector.
The Psalmist once prayed, “May He give you the desire or your heart and make all of your plans succeed” (Psalms 20:4). While I wanted something good for my student, the Lord wanted something greater, and my own plans would only succeed when they did not run perpendicular to God’s.

New Perspective
In October I received word from another junior teacher at the Suncheon institute that Ashlee was applying to join our staff. Soon I would be asked whether I, as her teacher, would recommend her to the institute director. For my best student this was a task I would gladly take up. However, more requests would soon be asked of me.
Our director, Pastor In-Jeong Moon, asked me if I would join Ashlee and some other teachers in Bible study, a group I soon found myself leading. This was a responsibility I had not tackled before, and to say that I was nervous about this would be an understatement of truly Biblical dimensions.
Each morning, before Ashlee’s class began, we studied from the Adventist church’s lesson quarterly, dealing with the book of Ephesians. As we studied the lessons relating to familial relationships found within churches, the other members of the study group asked probing questions, some of which concerned the very core of our Christian beliefs.
“Why didn’t God give Adam and Eve more chances?” they would ask, or “Why couldn’t God be more specific about the kind of temptations we would face?” These are questions lifelong believers often don’t think to ask, but I tried my best to show them that we, as humans, would still fail with more chances and greater instructions. Without the Lord’s help, we can only fall short. I don’t know if my explanations were any asset to their faith; I was merely happy that I didn’t drive the participants away from hearing the quality material they were reading.
Ashlee listened to these questions and answers but said very little during our study, except what she was asked to read. Every few days, however, she would offer to pray at the end of our study time. Maybe it was because she was not a native speaker, maybe it was because she was new to the faith we were learning, or maybe it was the childlike perspective she seems to have toward the world; whatever the reason, she spoke in phrases I’d never before heard in prayer. Unusual though they were, these words were refreshing in their sincerity:
“Our God of love, we speak to you in a low voice,” she might begin. “Please give us your hug of love.”
In January, after leading Ashlee in some lessons of his own, Pastor Moon baptized her in the institute’s church. She continued to study the Bible with me some mornings, though she was sometimes too busy with teaching classes, trying to improve her own English and completing certification needed to teach Japanese. By the time I transferred away from the Suncheon institute in May, Ashlee had not completed level four, but she had easily been absorbed into the institute’s staff.
Not only did she have a lot to offer as a language teacher, but her computer studies were also handy. She had no plan to pursue computers as a career path, but whenever another teacher struggled with one of the office’s machines, they could always say, “Ashlee, can you take a look at this?” and the problem was usually solved within minutes. By the time I left Suncheon, it seemed Ashlee had always been there.

The Lesson
When I came to Korea, I had hoped that I would lead someone to Christ. I have since realized that who leads them there is not the point; that they give their hearts to Jesus is the important thing. Many had a role in this one child of God’s decision: the other teachers who’d welcomed Ashlee as one of their own; Pastor Moon, who gave her opportunities for her faith to grow; and ultimately she had to make the choice to give up her business goals for the task of working as a missionary teacher.
In Luke 15:10, Jesus said that “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” I also celebrated when Ashlee joined His family. This was not because I’d had anything to do with it, but just because I’d been there to see it happen.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Weight Loss the Korean Way

In mid-May I had been back from Korea about two weeks, when one of my oldest friends saw me for the first time in nine months, and noticed how my church suit clung less tautly to my shoulders and elbows than it did last August. He became roughly the 32nd person to make the same observation, though I credit him for saying it in a more creative way:

“I see the Asians took their pound of flesh while you over there,” he said.

“More like thirty-five,” was my reply.

The variations of this same observation have been plentiful, and expressed in ways ranging from banal amazement (“Wow, you HAVE lost a lot of weight.”) to the trenchantly observant (“I know one thing, they sure didn’t fatten you up over there.”) to those implying I’ve somehow done something wrong (“So what have you been eating…or not eating, I should say?”).

Thanks to years of weight lifting and regular protein intake, I left the land of my birth weighing approximately 210 pounds, which is more than the combined population of the Korean peninsula (okay, not really, but certainly more than the North Koreans). Upon my return, all my well-learned politesse could not convince the scales to move past 175 pounds when I stood upon it. In many circles (which is what many of my countrymen are becoming, if you know what I mean) this would be cause for celebration.

However, since I’m 6’3 and have a family history of beenpolia, this was considered more of a return to form among past acquaintances and, among my co-workers in Korea, cause for alarm. “Are you starving yourself?” other foreign teachers would ask. “Here comes the skeleton crew” they would announce. Other times, they would speculate that it was a kind of fad diet involving a tapeworm.

The truth is, there were many factors involved, many of which I think my fellow Americans can learn from (in fact I’m sure of it; I saw more abdominal abundance within one hour of landing at the Nashville airport than I had in my entire time in Asia). For your edification, I can outline my simple Korean weight loss plan as follows:

Eat more rice and less of everything else-The Far East has a reputation for people spending long hours harvesting rice fields in the hot sun while wearing funny pointed hats. This is no longer true of South Korea, which industrialized during the 1960s and ‘70s, to the point where they now have machines capable of harvesting the rice and wearing funny pointed hats.

Nonetheless, in the Korean language, rice is called “bap,” which thus becomes the suffix of 90 percent of all Korean food. For example, there’s “kimbap,” or rice wrapped in seaweed with various vegetables/meat found inside, and “bibeembap” which roughly translates into “rice mixed with various vegetables and hot sauce, mixed together haphazardly.” These foods contain virtually no fat, and bibeembap should actually result in a net loss of calories since the hot sauce will cause you to sweat profusely.

Travel often-It’s good to have a series of business meetings in a far away city, which I had for a time in Seoul, requiring long trips via public transportation. These generally result in long periods of time with nothing to consume save potato chips and bottled water. Upon arrival at one’s destination, one is certainly hungry enough to eat, but energy from nothing but potato chips does not translate into enough force to lift a frying pan or push a fast food restaurant door open, so one tends to simply retire.

Walk everywhere, and in a hurry-It helps to have a work schedule requiring one to wake up and teach a class at 7 a.m. and several more spread throughout the day, culminating in a work day which ends at 9 p.m. This virtually ensures that the next morning one will not be compliant with an alarm clock that buzzes at 6 a.m. One will be much more compliant at, say, 6:52 a.m., at which point one may attempt to compress getting dressed in a professional outfit, taking an elevator down 15 floors and making a 10-minute walk to work quickly enough to avoid having all his students ask for refunds.

Have the right genetic material-This works not only for me, but for nearly all of East Asia. It is evident in the fact that there were several students at the Seventh Day Adventist Language Institute who were both mothers, and thirty-something-years old, and yet weighed about as much as a Magic Marker™ whose ink is entirely spent.

However, in April, a Korean public interest group proposed a ban on soft drinks in public schools to stop mounting obesity rates in children which had recently surpassed a rate of one out of every 10 students.

Wait a minute…one out of 10 is cause for concern? In America, one out of 10 students will have a minor heart attack between Spanish and Algebra classes during the month of November. In American school cafeterias “one out of 10” is what an average student might say to describe how many hot dogs he has had for lunch so far in comparison to how many he will wolf down by the time the bell rings.

So, in conclusion, in order to lose a significant amount of weight in a short time, one simply has to eat right, get plenty of physical activity and be less American. I fully expect this advice to revolutionize not only the diet industry, but how we prepare for the World Cup.

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